I recently participated in a University of California study about autistic people who went to college and/or graduate school. In that study, I was asked about where I went, what my living situation was, my social life, and the best and hardest parts of my years in higher academia. Prior to then, I had looked back on my undergraduate years with a fondness and nostalgia of time well-spent. But when forced to be completely honest with a stranger, I realized it had been far more difficult and trying than I had thought it to be.
Truth be told, being autistic and in college is incredibly tough. But if there's anything I learned, it's not impossible and can have some real benefits. So as my overall career in academia comes to a close, let me describe my college life over a series of posts.
While it doesn't seem like there's an upside to learning you're autistic long after your diagnosis, not knowing meant that I never believed I couldn't have a fairly "normal" life. I didn't think that there wasn't anything I couldn't do if I put my mind to it. And a "normal" life meant that I could go to college, specifically a four-year university program, right out of high school. And being someone who took to academia well, it didn't seem like an unrealistic goal.
I prepared myself as best as I could for what I thought was to come. I took honors and AP classes and applied myself as best as I could. I threw myself into extracurriculars like marching band, orchestra, theater, and my temple's youth group and actually had fun with them. I challenged myself to apply to as many schools as I thought I was qualified for. And while I got more rejections than I would've liked, I ended up getting into four schools.
I was excited for college. I was eager to engage in higher learning and live away from my parents. I had chosen to go to school in northern California - seven hundred miles away from home - and felt that the change of scenery would help me become independent. And I was optimistic that I would have a full social life beyond the confines of high school, especially since I got into a special honors program for my mandated college writing class and would be living among others in that same program.
Needless to say, it was much harder than I thought it'd be. Especially in the first year.
My first three weeks were rough and almost destroyed my college career. While I really liked my classmates in the honors program, I had a hard time with the professor leading the program. It was particularly hard to hear her critique my work and my sensitivities to it showed. This led to a meltdown severe enough that I was placed on a six-month medical leave. I can't find the appropriate words to express how upset I was - it was if someone had pulled a rug out from under me that had just been placed there. I spent the leave bitter, angry, and in a perpetual funk that no one had trusted me to have the great college experience I was entitled to.
That being said, being put on medical leave was a better option than what I could've had. When I had that meltdown, my parents drove up to help settle the ruffled feathers. I hadn't told the school about being autistic. The first thing my parents did was inform the dean and housing coordinator about it. They then spent almost an entire day in meetings with the dean to talk about the situation and managed to talk them out of expelling me. It took a lot of negotiation to get them to agree on the medical leave with the ability to return to school once I had medical leave to do so. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but I can't deny that I'd be unhappier if it weren't for that intervention.
Despite said bitterness and funk, I didn't want to waste those six months doing nothing. Doing nothing would only make me more bitter and I was gonna have my college career no matter what stood in my way. As my family lives within walking distance of a university partnered with my primary school, I took advantage of the connection. I enrolled in history, statistics, and French classes to keep myself intellectually engaged. And with some assistance in the search, in three months I had moved into an apartment with three roommates to test my independent living skills.
I was fine academically - I never needed much help aside from the odd reminder to do homework I wasn't particularly keen on (mainly in math classes). Most of my high school friends still lived in Los Angeles, so I could keep up something of a social life. But independent living was the real challenge - if I could deal with roommates and take care of myself without parental reliance I could prove to everyone that I could make it seven hundred miles away. And that experience was largely fine - I got along with my roommates and felt just a little more comfortable with not living at home.
Once I went back to up north, I stayed in school for the next three and a half years. And even with some greater challenges on the horizon, I couldn't be prouder.
(To Be Continued)
EDIT: I want to acknowledge that I wasn't completely alone in doing what I did in those precarious six months. My parents were instrumental in finding me a place to live for the second quarter of school and ensuring that I was able to pay for rent and other necessities. I may have moved out, but they assisted me in the process. The apartment I moved into was also close enough to home where the could check up on me if I was having any trouble (which they frequently did).
I also want to say that I didn't exactly overcome my unhappiness during my medical leave. I was angry, depressed, and generally morose the entire time. It got to the point where I had a meltdown bad enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room (a few days I was meant to move out nonetheless). I don't remember any other similar incidents but I still felt bitter the entire time. The fact they even let me move out was a giant leap of faith on their part and I'm glad it paid off. That support was crucial to my overall growth.